Aspiring to the Impossible

Practice of the Week
Aspiring to the Impossible

Category: Slogans to Live By: Practices for everyone to keep in mind and pay attention to. These practices don't require setting aside a separate substantial chunk of time. Just have the intention to grow stronger in each of these areas as you go about your day, and sometimes make one of them the focus of your daily journaling. The titles of these practices are guiding slogans to live by.
To dream the impossible dream /To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow /To run where the brave dare not go
To right the unrightable wrong /To love pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are too weary /To reach the unreachable star.
(lyrics by Joe Darion)

In the words of the founder of the Hongzhou lineage of Chan, Mazu Daoyi (709–788), the fruition of Chan practice is a fluid "harmony of body and mind that reaches out through all four limbs...benefiting what cannot be benefited and doing what can’t be done." ("Chan Buddhism," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Aspiration is a vow or commitment. In the Zen tradition, practitioners regularly recite “The Four Bodhisattva Vows”:
Beings are numberless; I vow to free them (all).
Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them (all).
Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them (all).
The Buddha way is unsurpassable; I vow to embody it.
Thich Nhat Hanh's version is:
However innumerable beings are, I vow to meet them with kindness and interest.
However inexhaustible the states of suffering are, I vow to touch them with patience and love.
However immeasurable the Dharmas are, I vow to explore them deeply.
However incomparable the mystery of interbeing, I vow to surrender to it freely.
These are certainly very impractical commitments. In fact, they are literally, precisely impossible to fulfill. But why not have aspirations so lofty they are impossible to fulfill? We’d be selling ourselves short if our aspirations were any less lofty. The trick is to keep on making effort in the direction of fulfillment of the aspiration but not to think that you will actually complete the job. Do not be dismayed or discouraged by this “failure” – instead be encouraged by it. This is a good approach because you will always have more to do and always be spurred on by the strength of your commitment. To commit to something you actually could accomplish is such small potatoes for a lofty, sacred human being like yourself.

The Four Bodhisattva Vows are extravagant and enthusiastic. They are the vows of one who is committed to becoming awakened for the benefit of others. While “bodhisattva” is a Buddhist word, I think it stands for something more basically human. We all want to be compassionate, giving, loving people at the bottom of our hearts. This is a human, not a Buddhist, aspiration. We would all like to serve others, to feel for others, to love others with everything we’ve got. We would all like to be a light for the world.

We might admire people who are wealthy, famous, or skillful in some way, but these things are not difficult. If you are born with some talent, a little luck (which might include the luck of being – by native temperament or by habit trained into you since childhood – hard-working), and you know the right people, you, too, can have one or more of those attributes. Many people are wealthy, famous, skilled, or all three. Much more difficult and much more wonderful is to be someone committed to compassion, to service, to love. Not someone that many people know about and talk about but someone who has the almost magical power of spreading happiness and confidence wherever she or he goes.

What a vision for your life, for your family, to be a light for those around you! To think of everything you do, every action, every social role, every task, as being just a cover for, an excuse for, your real aspiration: to free every being, end every delusion, learn wisdom from every moment – to spread goodness wherever you go. This requires no particular luck other than the good luck to be the sort of person willing to take on impossible aspirations – even if everything goes wrong in your life, even if bad luck befalls you at every turn, you can still adopt an aspiration similar to the Bodhisattva vows. No special skills or special contacts with “important” people are needed. Anyone can do this. We can all do this. This is the aspiration we should all cultivate for training the mind.

People often complain to me that they don’t have time for spiritual practice. In today’s busy world, it seems that we can barely cover the basics, let alone refine our lives further with spirituality. When spiritual practice is an item at the bottom of our long to-do lists (embedded in task-accomplishment apps on our smartphones), it is very hard to get to it – and usually we don’t. My answer is simple: spiritual practice is not an item on the list. It is not a task we do. It is how we do what we do. It’s a spirit, an attitude. Practice is not something we are doing over and above our life. It is our life. It is the way we live. We can live by striving toward unfulfillable vows.
And the world will be better for this, that one man . . .
Strove, with his last ounce of courage,
To reach the unreachable stars.
For Journaling

What unfulfillable vow will you make with your life? In your journal, reflect on this and re-write the Bodhisattva vows – or Don Quixote’s aspirations as sung in “Man of La Mancha” – into vows that you want to commit to pursuing (not achieving or keeping). Then, once a week, look back on the previous seven days and reflect on ways that your aspiration mattered – to you or to others -- or simply moments during which you recollected your vows.

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If Don Quixote's "quest" seems a bit ridiculous, consider the impossible aspirations of hopelessly overpowered resistance movements. Resistors may see themselves as having no chance to actually win -- yet they commit to "fight the unbeatable foe." Zbigniew Herbert's moving poem, "The Envoy of Mr. Cogito," is based on his experience in the Polish resistance against Nazi occupation. See the poem and my reflection on it: HERE.

For list of all weekly practices: "Spiritual Practice Directory"

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